IT’S that time of the year when you can’t help but feel jaded.
With the arduous post-Christmas slog taking its toll, and the lure of a foreign beach still way on the horizon, it’s the most popular time of the year to get away for a short break.
So what’s it to be? Head for the bright lights of the city for a whirlwind three days of sight-seeing, culture and booze? Or a relaxing retreat to the countryside for comfy settees, long walks and steam rooms?
It’s a vacational dichotomy that has had couples battling it out for generations.
No such warfare for me though after discovering the best of both worlds in Scotland.
We spent a night at the Hotel du Vin & Bistro in Edinburgh, digesting all that the capital city had to offer (literally), followed by two nights in the sumptuous Cameron House hotel on the banks of Loch Lomond, a stunning baronial mansion surrounded by 100 acres of woodland.
With just over an hour’s journey time between them, it was the perfect getaway in a stunning country.
Edinburgh is a vibrant city, dripping with history and culture.
The castle dominates the vista, standing proudly on the site of an extinct volcano, linking the Old and New town.
Below it are the many shops, bars and restaurants waiting to be explored.
The Hotel du Vin, which opened in the city in December as a luxury boutique hotel, is based in the Old Town and just a five-minute walk from the famous Royal Mile.
We enter via a courtyard, which includes a smoking bothy complete with leather settees. The reception area is bright and stylish ... more leather settees and a chandelier made entirely of upside-down wine glasses. Great idea.
If the saying that walls have ears was true, then this particular building would be able to regale many a tale. It dates back to 1689 and is the site of the city’s former lunatic asylum.
Robert Fergusson, the inspiration for poet Robert Burns to start writing, spent two years at the asylum, and died there at the age of 24.
The hotel has kept much of the original brickwork in its new design. The old stone walls reek of history. You can almost hear the voices.
We made our way up to our room, a stunning open-plan suite with a view of Arthur’s Seat.
The king-size bed, complete with Egyptian linen, dominated one half of the room. A huge settee, coffee table and 50-inch plasma TV were housed in the other.
The bathroom, with takeaway Arran Arromatics bath products, was luxury personified. The walk-in Monsoon shower had a head the size of a football, while a free-standing bath added that touch of class. We booked a table in the bistro that evening, perusing the ‘simple classics’ menu over a glass of champagne.
For starters (priced between £4.95 and £6.95), we dodged the Crispy Frogs Legs, opting for the Isle of Mull soufflé and Chicken Liver Parfait with plum chutney. The latter was delicious, although the soufflé – a mountainous creation of egg white – was a little over-bearing.
For main, we went for the Smoked Haddock Cassoulet, which was served in a deep dish topped with a Montgomery cheddar crust, and a Buccleuch Estate rib eye steak, accompanied with a rocket and parmesan salad.
The fish dish was original and imaginative, with the cheese enhancing the flavour of the smoked haddock, although a touch pricey at £13.95. The steak was cooked to perfection (just pink in the middle), and didn’t need anything other than a salad. We washed it down with a bottle of house red, a reasonably priced Merlot. The hotel offers more than 400 different wines, housed on a suspended walkway above the restaurant.
Diners also have the option of booking the chef’s table, where you can watch head chef Matt Powell and his team prepare your meal.
With little room left for desert, we opted for the petit fours. Out came that truly Scottish dish … deep-fried Mars Bar. And alongside it Irn Bru Turkish delight!
A bit like Haggis, the Mars Bar sounds disgusting but you have to try it. Imagine eating a sickly globule of Yorkshire pudding covered in chocolate, and you won’t be far off.
Dinner for two, with a bottle of win, comes in at a reasonable £85, and is well worth it.
Before we checked out, reservations manager Thomas Kaltenbrunner showed us the Laroche wine-tasting room, which is available to hire, and the whisky snug, home to 300 varieties of the hard stuff. The Burke and Hare function room contains a specially commissioned 15-ft high mural depicting the famous Edinburgh grave robbers, and is worth a viewing alone.
The only problem with booking into the Hotel du Vin is that you may never want to leave it to explore the vibrant city.
In less than 80 minutes, we arrived at the spectacular Cameron House in the heart of Loch Lomond.
The classic baronial mansion has just undergone a £30 million makeover, and it shows. This really is a building right out of Brideshead Revisited.
As you expect, the décor is traditional, but the many modern pictures that adorn the walls give it a contemporary twist.
Our room, one of 101 in the hotel, looked over on to the Loch, giving us a stunning view as the mist rolled in. The bed was gigantic, and the bathroom was a good size, although water from the walk-in shower did tend to meander to the toilet.
Disappointingly for a five-star hotel, there were no dressing gowns (they still never appeared even after we requested them) and the mini-bar was empty.
But this didn’t spoil our overall experience.
Guests have a choice of three restaurants: the Cameron Grill, the Boathouse and the Claret Jug.
On the first day, we lunched at the Boathouse, which is based at the marina. It’s a light and airy setting built in a New England style, which is also reflected in the menu: BBQ rack of ribs, Chicken Maryland, crab cakes and shrimps by the bucket.
We chose the Charcuterie platter for two, priced at £14, and were not disappointed by the diversity of the meat and cheese. The Boathouse is also a great place to chill out with a good book or a newspaper.
In the evening, we dined at the more traditional Cameron Grill, which has an open kitchen – always the sign of a confident chef. The centrepiece is a 28-ft hand-painted mural depicting scoundrels and vagabonds enjoying a banquet.
We also enjoyed a banquet – the food, with more than a nod to its native Scotland, was divine.
We opted for the classic shrimp cocktail at £9.95, and the traditional Loch Duart salmon, at £7.95. Both were fresh and plentiful.
For main, we raided the speciality grill menu for rib of beef on the bone, a massive portion that didn’t need the Red Rooster hand-cut chips side order. The wine menu was extensive, and we chose a bottle of Shiraz for £27. Expect to pay around £100 for a meal for two – but it’s worth it.
The following day, we chose the Claret Jug restaurant, which is connected to the hotel’s 18-hole golf course based at the Carrick, two miles from the hotel (the concierge will drive you there and back).
It’s a less formal dining experience but the quality of the food keeps up with the standard of the Cameron Grill.
The menu is dominated by fresh fish, although we chose a risotto of wild mushrooms and parmesan, and chicken breast in a red wine jus. It’s the perfect stop after a round of golf.
We stayed at the Carrick for an amazing experience at the spa. We relaxed in several of the trendy saunas and steam rooms before heading off to the heated infinity pool on the roof! Overlooking Ben Lomond, it really is breath-taking, even though the temperature was plummeting below zero. Hotel guests receive discounts at the spa.
We left Cameron House with our batteries fully recharged. Two days of luxury in one of the most stunning places on earth.
Hotel du Vin & Bistro, Bristo Place, Edinburgh. EH1 1EZ.
Rooms: £125-£295 a night. 0131 247 4900 www.hotelduvin.com.
Cameron House, Loch Lomond, Dunbartonshire. G83 8QZ.
www.devere-hotels.com/our-hotels/cameron-house Rooms: £190-£550 a night.